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Editorial: Roundhouse Can’t Let N.M. Lose Space Race

If there were any doubts the suborbital space race was intensely competitive, they were answered this week when it was revealed California’s Mojave Air and Space Port had hired former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to advise them on how to get that state’s legislature to approve a limit on lawsuits against space flight operators.

It worked. Now California, like New Mexico, provides that protection. But Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia go a step further and extend such lawsuit protection to ancillary companies like manufacturers as well.

So much for being first in this space race.

Christine Anderson, the executive director of New Mexico’s Spaceport America, says “increasingly the operators are the manufacturers. That’s why an emerging industry needs these protections.” She is concerned New Mexico will fall behind those other states. Mark Butler of Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America’s main tenant, says that’s already happened.

He explains New Mexico used to top the list of states for aerospace development but is falling to the bottom because of the incomplete liability legislation, commonly referred to as informed consent. Turns out relying on things out of state control — open airspace, three Air Force bases, a world-class Army missile range and two national labs — takes you only so far.

Those features make New Mexico a natural to launch this emerging industry. And despite what the trial-attorney lobby has argued, taxpayers who have invested $209 million in the spaceport just southeast of Truth or Consequences should know extending the waiver to suppliers costs nothing. That these waivers are similar to ones exempting ski areas from lawsuits by skiers. That they apply only to passengers who have paid six figures and been briefed on the risks inherent in being strapped inside a tube powered by rocket fuel for a ride into suborbital space. And that if there is gross negligence, all waivers are off.

Yes, it would have been cleaner if Spaceport officials and space companies had asked for both kinds of waivers the first time around. But they did not. Excusing inaction with that 20/20 hindsight now simply leaves the public stuck with a $209 million woulda, coulda, shoulda tab.

A recent market study commissioned by the FAA and Space Florida indicates there will be a strong demand for suborbital space travel over the next decade, with an estimated 8,000 individuals expected to buy a ticket. Virgin Galactic and Texas competitor Blue Origin hope to expand that further by hauling research, experimental and educational payloads to the edge of space along with passengers.

But it will take more than one company to get this endeavor off the ground. Spaceport America has three tenants — Virgin and two rocket companies. At least two other firms have rejected the Land of Enchantment because of the incomplete waivers. By comparison, the Mojave spaceport has more than 40 companies involved in manufacturing, research and development of manned and unmanned space flight — and it was still so concerned about losing this space race to one of the 18 other spaceports proposed around the country that it hired the guy who powered up New Mexico’s facility to protect its investment.

New Mexico lawmakers need to be just as worried about not protecting their constituents’ $209 million stake. They should act quickly in 2013 to expand the limited liability waivers and ensure Spaceport America is competitive from the ground up.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.